New York

“Around 1984: A Look at Art in the Eighties”

P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center

The idea of an exhibition devoted to the art of the '80s is almost irresistibly fun. A wholesale revival of the decade, represented by fashion designers like Marc Jacobs and a range of popular movies from The Wedding Singer to American Psycho, is supposedly upon us, mining the styles and attitudes of that frenetic era. Such a revival looks particularly right in New York today, where an environment of breathless expenditure and expansion, not to mention a looming sense of an inevitable “correction, evokes the era’s champagne-and-cocaine flavor no less than its menacing rise-and-fall histrionics. “Around 1984” extends this revival to the visual arts, providing a concise survey of the period that will be of interest especially to those of us who lived through the glory dam of Mary Boone’s West Broadway gallery, the &t village art scene, and boozy, “exclusive” nights at Canal Bar and 150 Wooster. But, sentimental reminiscences aside, such a perspective might also recall a relatively recent era of pointed aesthetic and ideological contention, in contrast to the tepid atmosphere of “inclusiveness” so characteristic of the ’90s.

Curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, “Around 1984” has the strengths and weaknesses common to the multiartist survey: Reasonably comprehensive, it is also rather shallow. The qualities of intellectual, stylistic, and thematic connection are attenuated, but the overall period flavor feels about right. Most of the works cluster comfortably around the Orwellian doom-date of the show’s title, with the antipodes represented by a 1980 Luigi Ontani (hideous) and a 1989 Franz West (snore). Of come, exhibitions such as this necessarily invite complaints regarding who’s in and who’s out. These can generally be relegated to the realm of de gustibus non est disputandum, but they sometimes point to more compelling issues of valuation and historical retrospect.

Certain of Christov-Bakargiev’s choices are legitimated by hindsight, the most glaring example being William Kentridge. His charcoal-on-paper Dreams of Europe, 1984, fits the chronological conceit perfectly, but the widespread reception of his work belongs very much to the art world of the late ’90s. When I mentioned this to someone at the P.S. 1 press office, he remarked that, yes, it could seem that way, but from the curator’s perspective in Rome at the time, Kentridge was already very much a presence. (Rome? I wondered.) Christov-Bakargev’s Italian background may account for the plentiful selection from the transvanguardia, but the corresponding absence of art from the Fatherland looks weird. German neo-expressionism is represented by a single illustrated book by Anshelm Kiefer, Der Rhein, 1983. Where are Georg Baselitz, A.R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz, and Jörg Immendorff all of whom were major figures on the international art scene in the mid-’80s? Immendorff may be as unpopular today as Kentridge is fashionable, but the juxtaposition of the two could only have been instructive, given certain unmistakable compare-and-contrast stylistic and perhaps even ideological &ties (i.e., quasi-mythological allegories of political-historical issues).

In her brief statement accompanying the show, Christov-Bakargiev gives a sense of her own parti pris: “In today’s globalized world of multiple biennials and international exhibitions . . . where artists from all parts are exhibiting together and initiating intercultural dialogue, to look at the art in the 1980’s implies observing one of the last periods during which the ‘center’ was both the platform for and the object of discussion. . . . At the same time, much of what is happening today has roots in the work of the 1980’s. Postmodernist relativism in fact was a theoretical legitimation for opening Western art-historical narratives to other possible narratives and ‘histories.’” This indeed sounds a lot like the canned PC pandering to “otherness” that flourished in the ’90s and maintains a strong, probably detrimental influence today—and, you guessed it, it first gained momentum in the ’80s. Chtistov-Bakargiev must have in mind the “critical” art of the time, like that of the “Pictures” artists as well as Krzysztof Wodiczko’s and Dennis Adams’s public-art agitprop and the incipient “identity woe of Jimmie Durham and even Keith Haring. Once again, the curator’s retrospective vision seems rather too neatly circumscribed by the it’s-a-small-world sensibility of the ’90s.

However inviting the near-range historical look back, Christov-Bakargiev’s willful retrospection leaves one with a rather unnuanced view of the moment. In her text, the curator alights upon “artists [who] explored fiction, the cinematic gaze, and pleasure from the perspective of gender difference in society”—e.g., Dara Birnbaum, Cindy Sherman, Sherrie Levine, and Barbara Kruger—“anticipating some of the most interesting art of today.” From where I sit, the best work in “Around 1984” is the same stuff by and large that I liked when it first came out—“Pictures,” Neo-Geo, “smart” photography by the likes of Thomas Struth and Jeff Wall, and proto-abject art by Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy. But what of the affinities between, say, the “Pictures” artists and contemporaneous yet supposedly antithetical work by David Salle and Eric Fischl (who isn’t even in the show)—the turgid atmosphere of domestic melodrama, war between the sexes, and purposively fake narratives? That one strand emanates from a critical position and another from cynical-ironic complicity doesn’t obviate their similarities. Even where I am in agreement with Christov-Bakargiev, her survey would have benefited from a broader examination of such period congruities—where, for instance, are “Pictures” artists like Troy Brauntuch and Jack Goldstein in this history?—rather than relying so much on the usual suspects.

David Rimanelli is a contributing editor of Artforum.